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Posts Tagged ‘Tom Jones’

Sometimes you come across or rediscover a film which time or a sense of familiarity have led you to forget the sheer weirdness of. I’m not necessarily talking about very obscure, fringe films dealing with odd subject matter, but those very occasional examples of someone high-up at a big Hollywood studio having a bit of a brainstorm and greenlighting a project that, by rights, had no business even going to script stage. When one of these films is a monumental success, the suit responsible is hailed as a visionary film-maker and usually goes on to a lucrative career making the same kind of movie over and over and over again. But it doesn’t change the fact that the initial film was still a bit weird at the time it was made. Most often, though, the film either flops or does okay, inspires no great raft of imitators, and we are just left with an eye-catching freak of a film.

So, then: Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!, released in the UK at least in 1997, which one reviewer even at the time instantly pegged as an extraordinary piece of folie de grandeur which could only have been made by mistake. It is a very odd film even in its conception: Hollywood is increasingly looking to peculiar places to avoid the strain of having to think up original ideas for films, but rather than a book, comic, theme-park ride or game, Mars Attacks! is based on a set of trading cards. Films based on knitting patterns or the assembly instructions for flat-pack furniture are only a matter of time, surely.

The tone is set by a garishly grotesque sequence depicting a stampeding herd of blazing cows (inspired by original card #22, Burning Cattle), which we are invited to assume is the work of a passing flying saucer before it zips off back to Mars. The credits roll as a veritable armada of Martian ships, lovingly styled in the retro 50s manner, launch and head for Earth, causing no small degree of alarm on our planet.

In charge of overseeing the response is US president James Dale (Jack Nicholson), who seems to have a sort of vague hope the arrival of the Martians will result in him looking good. Others are less optimistic. (To be honest, this film has about eighteen main characters, so attempting to describe and keep track of them all would be a bit futile; we’ll see how it goes.) Anyway, the Martian Ambassador ends up landing in the Nevada desert and the translation machine built by one scientist (Jerzy Skolimowski, whose career seems to get more bizarrely eclectic every time I come across him) assures everyone that they have indeed come in peace. Yeah, right. Then of course there is a mix-up with a dove, causing the Martians to furiously reach for their ray guns, and…

To be honest, the film kind of falls into a sort of cycle from this point on: the Martians gleefully inflict garish death and horror on the humans for a bit, shouting ‘Ack! Ack! Ack!’ to each other all the while, after which the humans desperately wonder what went wrong and make a plaintive attempt to contact the Martians and put things back on a friendly basis. The Martians clearly can’t believe how dumb the humans are, and propose another meeting, which will clearly just be another pretext for more neon-hued slaughter, at which point it all repeats. Along the way there are various charming tableaux clearly inspired by some of the original cards (e.g., #19, Burning Flesh, #24, The Shrinking Ray, and #36, Destroying a Dog), although – if you’re wondering – the plot of the movie only very loosely follows that of the original card series.

So you look at all this and think, well, it has a very distinctive visual sense – Tim Burton initially wanted the Martians created using stop-frame animation, but budgetary considerations meant CGI was used instead (some of it not fantastic to the modern eye) – and obviously the weird black comedy aspects of the story must have appealed to him, but still – how the hell did this thing get made? Quite apart from the grisly black comedy alien invasion storyline, the film is subversive and tongue in cheek and often just plain weird, never things the financiers of your typical Hollywood blockbuster will knowingly try to do. The closing moments of the film see the world recovering from the Martian onslaught, which has been repelled using one of the silliest plot devices imaginable – and the return to normalcy is symbolised by deer, birds, and other animals flocking around Tom Jones, who launches into a celebratory rendition of ‘It’s Not Unusual’. I have a lot of time for Sir Tom Jones, but on this occasion he is wrong: it’s not ‘not unusual’. Often it is simply peculiar.

At the time the film came out, it was less than a year after Independence Day, and the assumption was that this was intended as some kind of spoof or parody of it. My first thought would be that it’s extremely difficult to parody something not intended to be taken entirely seriously anyway, but there are a few shots which do seem to suggest this may have been the case. The two films likewise share a sprawling structure largely derived from disaster movies, with a commensurately large cast (apart from Nicholson, Mars Attacks features – deep breath – Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan (doing a very Hugh Grant-like turn – apparently Grant was first choice for the role), Danny DeVito, Sarah Jessica Parker, Natalie Portman, Jim Brown, Lukas Haas, Rod Steiger, Martin Short, Pam Grier and Jack Black.

However, it also seems to me that Burton is also doing a send-up of sci-fi movies from an earlier generation. This was only a year or two after Ed Wood, which recreated the ne plus ultra of bad fifties UFO films, so you can see why he might have this kind of idea. Certainly there are shots and sight-gags which are spot-on parodies or recreations of films like Earth vs the Flying Saucers and This Island Earth. But, once again, how many decent, ordinary film-goers are going to get a joke like that?

And there’s one more set of influences to be stirred into what’s already a very eggy pudding (not to mention an over-cooked metaphor): as well as playing the president, Nicholson also turns up in another role, as a Nevada property developer (who mainly seems to be in the movie to give Nicholson a chance to ham it up just the way he likes to). Coupled to some visual cues in the design of the president’s war room, and Rod Steiger’s performance as the rather hawkish general, it’s hard not to conclude that, on top of everything else, Burton was either attempting to replicate the tone of – or just homage – Dr Strangelove. This only succeeds as homage, if that: Burton has many fine qualities as a film-maker but the same kind of fierce, forensic intelligence Kubrick possessed is not amongst them and the film doesn’t have the edge or satirical power of Strangelove. (Though… I watch it now, seeing the ineffectual leader, insisting he will take control of the situation and demanding that schools and shops stay open… and I can’t help but be struck.)

Virtually no element of Mars Attacks! is consistently successful. Some parts of it just don’t work at all: there are a few dead wood characters and jokes that just fall flat, some of them a bit suspect. However, there are enough jokes that work, and the film has enough of a sense of mischief about it, for it to be quite watchable: there are some very game performances, obviously I like all the call-backs to B-movie sci-fi, and I think one of the film’s real flaws is that Tom Jones only turns up in the third act. Every time I return to it, I just find myself marvelling that someone read this script and said ‘Yes, this seems like a perfectly normal piece of commercial film-making: have $70 million!’ In a sane world it should not have been made. However, it is unusual to find evidence of an insane world which actually makes one feel slightly optimistic, for once, and I am quite glad it was.

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